By Johnny Jackson
Fifteen-year-old Marcos Gonzales is confident he will be a good driver. He is planning to take his driver's permit test on Saturday, and expects to do well.
However, there are things he, and his friends, readily admit they are not altogether prepared for when driving.
"It's so hard to stay focused," said his classmate, Chanel John, 13. Her friend Aishane Hill, 14, admits she gets nervous when her mother tells her about driving. Friends, Cecili Keith, 15, and, LaKenya Boykin, 14, both confessed they would initially have trouble concentrating on the road, if their favorite songs were playing on the radio.
This group of Luella High School underclassmen is precisely the group that could use the additional cautionary tale about driving, said George Eckerle, Luella High's principal.
On Thursday, they got positive reinforcement from veteran NASCAR driver Jeff Burton. Burton visited the school enroute to the Atlanta Motor Speedway. He will run his No. 31 AT&T Mobility Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS in hopes of winning Sunday's Pep Boys Auto 500.
"Driving safely is so important, and this is the place where all the young drivers are," Burton said. "It's just a great opportunity [to promote safe driving]."
Burton, a driver-safety advocate with AT&T, has visited high schools around the country for the past two years, urging students and would-be new drivers of their driving responsibilities. He was at Luella early Thursday afternoon.
"Every year, high schools across the county lose students because of car accidents," Burton said. "It's really, really important for you guys to understand [driving ...], with it comes a huge responsibility."
Burton, who began racing go-carts at age 7 and racing cars at 16, credits his longevity on the professional racing circuit to his safety practices behind the wheel - on and off the track.
He told his teenage audience that he experienced the loss of friends, and injuries to family members in preventable automobile accidents. He urged teens to use sound judgment, common sense and adhere to the rules of driving, to avoid fates similar to people he knew.
"Just understand that you're not as good a driver as you really need to be, or will be in the future," he said. "An automobile is a dangerous thing. It can kill you in the matter of seconds. Be responsible for yourself, and the people with you. You can't do it, if you are not here. You can't do it, if you die in a car accident."
According to the Teen Driving Council, one in three teen drivers has an accident in the first year of receiving a license, and a teenager is injured in a car crash every 55 seconds, and killed every 6.5 minutes. Crashes continue to rank as the top cause of death among children and young adults.
"Anytime you have a celebrity push the same message that we try to, it's important," added Principal Eckerle. "With Jeff Burton speaking about it, the message becomes even stronger."